On Tuesday, the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that it now supports protections for the LGBT community in areas like housing and employment. Their position is muddled, however, by rhetoric indicating that these protections must be “balanced” by what the church labels “religious freedom” protections. In fact, it might not be accurate to say the Church supports LGBT protections at all.
It’s difficult to ascertain what’s actually new about the Church’s position — in part because it’s difficult to ascertain what that position actually is. The officials who spoke at Tuesday’s press conference were adamant that homosexuality was still as sinful as ever, so nothing changed there. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson clarified, “We are announcing no change in doctrine and church teachings today.” Support for legislation prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people came with a caveat for “religious liberty,” but the language was excessively vague as to what exactly that caveat should be for the Mormon Church to support a bill. Indeed, based on other remarks made during the press conference, it may be more accurate to conclude the Church supports — or at least turns a blind eye toward — anti-LGBT discrimination as much as it ever has.
“Religious liberty” is the very language being used by conservatives to advance legislation across the country that would allow individuals and businesses to legally discriminate against LGBT people based on their religious beliefs. In Michigan last month, for example, Republicans only agreed to consider adding LGBT protections to state laws if a pro-discrimination “religious liberty” bill were considered alongside it. Though none of the bills ultimately passed, it was only the “religious liberty” bill that advanced while the actual protections were abandoned.
At the press conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks provided significant context to indicate that this definition of “religious liberty” — a carve-out license to continue discriminating — is exactly the dog whistle the Church was sounding. His first example was Christian student clubs who demand to receive university funding despite their refusal to honor their schools’ LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination protections. Oaks also portrayed as victims the pastors in Houston, Texas who were subpoenaed specifically for information about their involvement in a petition process to overturn the city’s newly passed LGBT protections. In other words, it was the pro-discrimination pastors who were being persecuted, even as they were working against the very protections the Mormon Church now claims to support.
Oaks also seemed to indicate that laws should somehow even protect individuals who are held accountable in the public square for their anti-gay beliefs. He cited both Peter Vidmar and Brendan Eich as victims of religious persecution, both of whom ultimately resigned from symbolic public positions because of outcry over their support for California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage that infamously received huge financial support from the Mormon Church. Oaks explained, “When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser.” In a follow-up interview, Christofferson echoed this sentiment, adding, “It’s just as unfair for that to happen as for LGBT individuals to be discriminated against.”
But booing a pro-discrimination position is in no way comparable to actually discriminating. Or, as Scott Bixby characterized it at NewsMic, “Bullying is when a stronger person picks on a weaker person, not when the person being picked on tells the teacher.” What the Mormon Church is actually suggesting with these comments is that supporting discrimination (like Vidmar and Eich undeniably did) deserves as much protection as preventing discrimination. At The Bilerico Project, John Becker called the Church’s quid pro quo request a “poison pill” that should never be accepted in any civil rights legislation. The New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal didn’t hedge his take at all, concluding, “What they want is legal permission to use their religion as an excuse to discriminate.”
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) also expressed skepticism at the announcement. In a press release, HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow described the Church’s proposal as “deeply flawed,” referring to Oaks’ example of a doctor who should be free to decline to provide fertility services to a lesbian couple. “Nondiscrimination protections only function when they are applied equally,” she explained.
If there’s any doubt that the Church is concerned about how this announcement is spun, a new “additional resource” attached to the original press release instructs journalistic outlets about how to write their headlines. It seems that too many outlets are over-focusing on the part about supporting LGBT protections. “We need to point out,” the memo reads, “that in a few cases the headlines (which typically are not written by the reporter) are misleading readers and viewers by omitting the religious freedom element of the announcement, which is at its core.” Almost every headline it recommends includes the word “balance,” as in a “balance of gay and religious rights.”
What’s also suspicious is how the Church accidentally made this same announcement a month ago, then walked it back. A statement was posted on the website MormonsAndGays.org that referred to the Church’s “support in Utah for nondiscrimination protections of employment and housing.” The following day, the statement was modified to clarify that it was only referring to that one time in 2009 when it supported a local ordinance in Salt Lake City. That ordinance, as the Church acknowledged in its endorsement, included exemptions for religious organizations and universities. In other words, in a city where the Mormon Church controls most of the city’s industry, the Mormon Church supported a gay rights ordinance that the Mormon Church wouldn’t even have to follow. If anything, Tuesday’s press conference seemed like an attempt to spin that hollow endorsement, just with better media coverage.
MormonsAndGays.org, launched in 2012, was itself an attempt to spin the Church’s rejection of homosexuality in a positive way. There was a marginal improvement in rhetoric; the Church acknowledged that being gay is not a choice and not a disease, but continued to insist that acting on it is still a sin. It was also the first time the Church acknowledged that, “Unlike in times past, the Church does not necessarily advise those with same-sex attraction to marry those of the opposite sex,” advice that clearly hasn’t been embraced.
A spokesperson for the Church did respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry, but could not provide any specifics about what “religious liberty” exemptions would be required for the Church to support LGBT protections.